Is Gender Variation a Psychological Illness?

Psychosexuality, or in plainer English, psychological behavior that is seemingly associated with biological sex has, since the 1960’s, been split into three categories: gender role, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Gender Identity and sexual orientation have always been viewed primarily as biological and/or one’s own sense of self as belonging to one sex or the other, whereas gender roles have primarily been viewed as culturally stimulated. However in recent years, many social scientists have begun to question whether some attributes of gender roles are actually biologically induced instead of culturally induced. As a result large amounts of attention have been placed on Gender Identiy Disorders (GIDs). Strong psychological identifications with the opposite sex that are signaled by the display of opposite sex-typed behaviors and avoidance or rejection of sex-typed behaviors characteristic of one’s own sex. Social scientists hope that by studying these cases of GIDs they might be able to determine whether or not gender variation is a psychological illness or a biological phenomenon. In this particular issue we are exposed to both sides of the topic.

John B. McDevitt claims that GID is a psychological disorder, and is brought on solely by psychological influences and stresses. McDevitt uses data collected from an analysis of Billy-a four-year old boy that wants to be a girl. He tells the reader of Billy’s progression in his GID as he grows older. Starting at age four, we see Billy grow and experience dramatic changes in his gender identity. From one moment to the next Billy goes from wanting to be a girl and do the things that girls typically do to wanting to be a boy, from his playing with Barbie’s, to his constructions with legos, to his participation in school activities, to his relations with other people. We find that Billy is very unstable in his decisions, wavering from one to the other, feeling confused and lost. He has fantasies of marrying and having children but also of secretly picking up men in gay bars to satisfy his often-changing desires and behaviors. McDevitt maintains that Billy’s uncertainty about his gender identity can be directly traced to psychological abuse administered by his mother, who McDevitt sates had an “âÂ?¦unconscious need to shape Billy in a feminine manner.” McDevitt cites the problems Billy’s mother had with her own gender identity, brought on by her experiences as a child with her sister and her father, and her neurotic personality disorder as serious determinants to Billy. He also cites Billy’s lack of assertiveness, his passive nature and his heightened visual, tactile and auditory sensitivity as determinants. McDevitt also cited all trauma, overstimulation, the absence of his father, and Billy’s fear of his father’s hostility as determinants. He concludes that Billy’s GID is in fact a psychological illness, resultant of the all the psychological influences and abuses he endured while growing up.

Katherine K. Wilson, however, holds that GID is not a psychological illness, but instead finds its roots in the biological make-up of the patient. Wilson uses the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and its supporting literature to support her claim. After a careful examination of entries made in the DSM-IV dealing with GIDs Wilson finds that the “American psychiatric perceptions of transgendered people are remarkably parallel to those for gay and lesbian people before the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973.” Her point is that people with GID are not psychologically ill. Saying that current definitions of psychiatric disorder depend largely on subjective assumptions regarding “normal” sex and gender roles and social prejudice. The problem as she sees it is that “a widening segment of gender non-conforming youth and adults are potentially subject to diagnosis of psychosexual disorder, stigma and loss of civil liberty. Wilson believes that just as the DSM did for homosexuality in the 1970’s it should do the same for GIDs, claiming, “It is time for the transgendered community to engage the psychiatric profession in a dialogue that promotes medical and public polices which, above all, do no harm to those they are intended to help.”

Both McDevitt and Wilson provide substantial and convincing evidence to support their claims. McDevitt makes a strong a valid point that appeals to the logos; his careful examination and subsequent logical developments are very conducive and fall well within the realm of accepted possibility. However, Wilson makes a very strong presentation also, after reading her cited sources and excerpts from the DSM, it is easy to see side with her and adopt the view that GID is not a psychological disorder, but should be regarded by the APA in the same way homosexuality is regarded-not as a psychological disorder.
I find myself, not unlike Billy, somewhere in-between the two sides. One moment I want to side with McDevitt, the next it is Wilson that captures my vote. Both sides have excellent qualities and appealing attributes and points on which I agree. For instance, I side with McDevitt in that I think there is defiantly a large psychological influence involved. Without a doubt I think that a parent has a huge influence over their children especially in their infant and toddler years, and that it is very conceivable that a child may have GID as a result of psychological abuse received from parents or other outside sources. However, I also think that where that may be true in some cases, it may not hold true in all cases. I think it would be impossible to deny that there are cases of GID where no psychological abuse is present. Even in Billy’s case McDevitt admits cites biological conditions as determinants, Billy’s lack of assertiveness his passive nature and his heightened visual, tactile and auditory sensitivity have biological roots – not psychological roots.

Therefore, while I think that some cases of GID may have the implications of a psychological illness, I think that there have to be certain biological factors in place as well for it to fully develop. The same holding true for the flipside, just because the biological factors are in place doesn’t mean that a person will develop GID. Without a stimulant, be it psychological or otherwise, to encourage the development of GID you’ll just end with a man or woman that has certain tendencies towards opposite sex-type behaviors, yet still very aware of their biological sexuality and identity.

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